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Turkmenistan takes a tiny step toward democracy

A new political party has formed for the first time since Turkmenistan won its independence in 1991. The nominal opposition unlikely poses any challenge to the authoritarian rule of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

The Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs held its inaugural meeting on Tuesday. State media reported that Orazmammed Mammedov, a member of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs - which itself was signed into being by Berdymukhamedov last year - was elected chairman of the new party.

In January, the Central Asian state enacted a law allowing opponents of the regime to formally organize. To be authorized, a party's governing structure must be "located exclusively on Turkmenistan territory," a clause that appeared to exclude other opposition movements, whose leaders all live in exile.

After the 2006 death of the dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, Berdymukhamedov took over the Democratic Party, formed from the Turkmen branch of the Soviet Communist Party. Berdymukhamedov embarked on cautious reform, ordering the creation of a multi-party system, but critics say the state remains deeply authoritarian and accuse him of now installing a personality cult of his own.

With 97 percent of the vote, Berdymukhamedov won a new five year-term in a February election shunned by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe because of its lack of competition. He beat seven challengers drawn from state ministries and enterprises, several of whom praised his achievements.

Human Rights Watch said in its latest annual report that media and religious groups in Turkmenistan are subject to "draconian restrictions."      

mkg/pfd (Reuters, AFP)